If you’ve read my article on powerlifting vs bodybuilding, you may be under the impression that bodybuilders focus exclusively on light weights. Yet, this is far too simplistic. Just because Ronnie Coleman shouts “light weights” doesn’t mean he’s actually using them. So, do bodybuilders lift heavy or light weights?
Bodybuilders tend to train with a mix of light and heavy weights. But as the goal is hypertrophy rather than strength or power, they are more likely to use lighter weights for higher reps than heavy weights. Of course, what a bodybuilder considers light is substantially heavier than what a regular person would consider light.
This article will go into detail on what type of weights and rep ranges bodybuilders tend to use, and why many will perform a mix of light and heavy to maximise their gains.
Go onto YouTube and you can see video evidence of eight-time Mr Olympia Ronnie Coleman deadlifting 800lbs (363 kg). That is not a light weight, that is more than 3x what I would consider a heavy weight!
Please keep in mind, when I say heavy or light weights in this article, it is within the context of what bodybuilders can lift, not what regular people can lift. A light weight for Jay Cutler may be 5x what I can max out on the bench press.
Bodybuilders perform a variety of rep ranges during their training. Often going very high rep for certain exercises and very low rep for compound exercises such as the deadlift. But the most commonly used rep range for bodybuilding is 8-12 reps.
This rep range requires a medium weight, but that depends on what type of exercise you are performing. A bench press is a large compound movement that allows you to shift a lot of weight. Whereas a dumbbell fly is an isolation movement that requires a very light weight.
Bodybuilding is all about time under tension, a full range of motion, and training to exhaustion. So using a lighter weight is often preferable. If you use too much weight then your form might start to slip, you might not perform a full range of motion, and you may end up rushing the exercise slightly.
On the other hand, using a weight that is too light could lead to stagnation as you need to challenge your muscles for them to grow.
Answer = Bodybuilders use a mix of light, medium, and heavy weights, depending on the exercise in question. But the most commonly used weights are medium.
Yes. They will use lighter weights for isolation exercises, they may also use lighter weights for drop sets. A bodybuilder may also pick a slightly lighter weight than they can manage so that they can slow the tempo down, or perform pauses during the exercise.
The weight itself should not be seen as important, the most important thing is the quality of the exercise. Here is what bodybuilders are focusing on:
The rep range is also important, with 8-12 reps per set being seen as ideal for hypertrophy. The weight used needs to be the maximal allowed to perform the set with all of the factors above covered. If the weight is too heavy and you can’t perform a full range of motion, then lower the weight. If the weight is too heavy and your form begins to fail then lower the weight. And if you can’t perform the exercise at the correct tempo then lower the weight.
Lift a weight light enough that you can perform the correct number of reps with excellent form and tempo, but heavy enough to really challenge your current strength. Design your workouts so that they offer a mix of rep ranges and exercises. Here is a rough guide to pairing rep ranges with exercises:
These rules don’t have to be followed religiously, you could perform a high-rep low weight bench press to fatigue your muscles, or you could add some weight and do heavier cable crossovers. This is just a guide.
You can build muscle using most techniques, particularly if you are just starting out. Provided you are consuming enough protein and you are consistent with your workouts you should see good results. The rep range of 3 sets of 8-12 reps just happens to be the most popular (and effective) for hypertrophy.
It is certainly possible to build muscle using light weights, you can even do so with no weights! Just perform bodyweight exercises. Particularly if you are new to working out. But you need to constantly be increasing the difficulty. This either involves lifting heavier weights or performing more reps.
Very high rep sets can lead to muscle growth, but they are quite an inefficient method. Not only is there a higher risk of chronic injury from repetitive movements, but workouts will take longer and feel less exciting.
Brad Schoenfeld’s Max Muscle Plan starts off with several weeks of high rep (15-20) sets, and speaking as someone who has followed this program, it can be very effective yet also quite boring. There is also the psychological effect of picking up very light weights in front of a room of alpha males, which shouldn’t be overlooked!
Brad’s program sees you lowering the rep range over time and increasing the weights, it works really well and I have modelled my own programming off that (apologies Brad). This method is perfect for building muscle, particularly if you are new to bodybuilding. It looks something like this:
This is just a rough plan, but it gives you an idea of how to gain muscle using a variety of rep ranges. As you can see, 8 weeks of the program involve rep ranges that fit into the medium-rep range (6-15 reps) while 6 weeks involve higher rep ranges, lower rep ranges, and a rest week.
Bodybuilders lift a variety of different weights depending on what exercise they are performing, or what part of their training program they are currently on. Compared to a regular gym-goer, all the weights they use would be considered heavy.
The perfect rep range for hypertrophy is around 8-12 reps, but this can be slightly higher or lower. A good program will involve a variety of different rep ranges, but most amateur bodybuilders will benefit from the type of program described above.
Matt Smith is the owner of Beer N Biceps. He has a degree in Sports Science, 10 years of experience working in the fitness industry, and has written for hundreds of fitness websites. He is a lover of good quality beer and believes that drinking in moderation can form part of a healthy lifestyle.